MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain said on Thursday it would dissolve the country’s main Shi’ite Muslim opposition group, in its toughest crack down yet on Shi’ite dissidents who led an uprising to demand more say in the Sunni-ruled monarchy.
The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs said in a statement it would seek a court approval to disband Wefaq, which won 18 seats in the 40-seat parliament in last year’s election.
The government move followed the arrest of more than 300 Shi’ite activists and the mass sacking of Shi’ite workers from state companies for taking part in protests demanding more freedoms, an end to discrimination and a constitutional monarchy.
The government led by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa royal family has also clamped down on bloggers and sacked senior editors from Bahrain’s only independent newspaper.
The ministry statement said the action against Wefaq was prompted by “major violations of the constitution and laws of the kingdom and for undertaking activities that harmed social peace, national unity, and inciting disrespect for constitutional institutions.”
Last month Bahrain’s Sunni rulers crushed weeks of protests led mainly by Shi’ites, deploying security forces throughout the capital and calling in troops from Sunni-led Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Gulf Arab rulers accused non-Arab Shi’ite Iran of interfering in Bahrain, where Shi’ites form at least 60 percent of Bahrain’s 600,000 natives.
The Shi’ite uprising unnerved neighbouring Sunni countries, particularly oil giant Saudi Arabia which feared that protests could spread further and embolden its own disgruntled Shi’ites in the Eastern Province, home to most of the country’s oil.
Saudi Arabia, linked to Bahrain by a causeway, is seen as the political and financial guardian of the island state which is also the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa was in Riyadh on Wednesday for talks with Saudi Crown Prince Sultan.
He was among the first royals at Riyadh airport to welcome back King Abdullah after his treatment abroad for illness in February, when analysts say Gulf pressure on Manama was strong to end the protest movement.
The government had not previously targeted Wefaq, which has called for a constitutional monarchy but did not join other smaller groups who demanded the overthrow of the al-Khalifa ruling family during the protests.
Wefaq mobilised more than 100,000 protesters during peaceful marches when the government still allowed gatherings.
It won 18 seats in Bahrain’s 40-seat elected parliament last year, while complaining of gerrymandered electoral districts to prevent Shi’ite candidates demanding democratic reform from taking a majority. It resigned its seats in parliament in protest over the government crackdown.
Parliament has little power and the cabinet, appointed by the king, has been headed by the same member of the ruling family for four decades.
Shi’ite deputies denounced the government move which they said did not distinguish between moderate and hardline Shi’ites.
“It’s reached a stage where they say there are no more moderates, that the entire opposition consists of extremists. This is the wrong message,” said Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a former Wefaq member of parliament.
“The hardliners (in government) never wanted Wefaq to take part in elections and get seats in parliament,” he said.
Wefaq said in a statement that it had always complied with Bahraini laws and regulations and that it was still committed to a political solution to Bahrain’s political crisis.
The severity of the crackdown stunned Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, who say they have no loyalty to Iran. It also sparked criticism from Iran and Shi’ite groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The United States offered muted criticism of the government’s crackdown and analysts say it refrained from pushing Bahrain to ease its security sweeps because of anxieties over interference from Iran, just across the Gulf.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul